Sometimes, the term curtains is often used to refer to basically any type of soft window treatment. But for most people, a curtain is a long panel of fabric that frames the sides of the window. You may notice that many interior designers also use the term drapes or draperies.
But what is the difference between curtains and drapes? Both are made of panels of fabric that frame the sides of a window, but they are different. A curtain is flowy, light-weight and has very little built-in fullness and generally loosely refers to a window treatments sewn out of fabric. A drapery is longer and lined, has more fullness, and is made with better quality details like blind stitched hems and drapery metal weights, to name a few.
Let’s take a look at the differences in more detail and explain.
It Takes a Certain Amount of Fullness to Make It a Drapery
Most draperies are made with about 150% to 250% fullness built in.
In other words, if a single drapery panel is 50 inches wide when laid flat, you can expect it to cover about 20 to 33 inches of wall space. There are exceptions, but this is very common.
For example, say you’ll install a 70-inch drapery pole over a 40-inch window. To frame your window, it means you’ll need to cover about 40 inches or so of the overall wall space, with about 30 inches of the window exposed. This translates to needing two 50-inch draperies, with one drapery on each side of the window to make up a pair.
Draperies use home decor fabrics and are typically lined. A curtain with thin lining or no lining that uses light-weight fabric will need at least 300% to 400% of fullness to match the coverage of a drapery. So, even if you have a light-weight, semi-sheer or sheer curtain, it can still be considered a drapery as long as it has the proper fullness.
On the other hand, a drapery panel that doesn’t have enough fullness becomes a curtain by default.
Up close of how full a drapery that’s 78 inches wide should look. This drapery is both lined and interlined. It covers about 32 inches of width when stacked back, as shown in the picture.
Grommet curtains are very common because of their small amount of fullness. Grommet drapes are less common and usually require almost twice as much fullness as regular grommet curtains.
The tab top panels below show the clear difference between curtains and draperies by looking at fullness. The bedroom curtain in taupe is a light-weight semi-sheer fabric, where each panel is only 50 inches wide. Clearly, the curtains are lacking in fullness, especially next to the oversized tufted headboard. The curtain rod was hung incorrectly, too.
Tab top curtains.
By contrast, the tab top drapery below not only uses a medium-weight home decor fabric, but the panel is also 75 inches wide and the drapery is fully lined.
A tab top drapery.
Draperies Are Fully Lined
Curtains do little to block out the sun because they tend to be unlined. Even when they are lined, the lining tends to be a flimsy, gauze-like fabric that does very little. Draperies are fully lined with another layer of fabric in white or ivory, which oftentimes is just as thick as the face fabric, if not more.
Some draperies also have interlining, which is a felt-like material that is sandwiched in between the main fabric and lining. The drapery would be made in three layers of fabric overall when interlined. If the fabric is 100% silk, interlining is a must since silk is quick to fade in the sun over the years.
At first glance, it may appear that the window treatments on these three windows are sheer, but they’re just curtains without any lining. In fact, all the window treatments in the picture are more realistically considered curtains, not true valances and draperies because of the lack of fullness and lining.
Draperies Are Hung High and Touch the Floor
A few inches on a window treatment can make or break it. All it takes is a bad measurement to demote a drapery to a curtain in an instant. It doesn’t even matter if it was a custom order that cost hundreds of dollars.
The hand-made work on this dining room window treatment definitely would put it in the drapery quality category. But even so, this drapery quickly becomes a curtain instead because it’s almost 2 inches from the floor.
A drapery can have different lengths. Let’s discuss…
It can be floor-length, meaning that it touches or almost touches the floor. If this “almost” is off more than half an inch, the drape is too short.
For standard windows in rooms with 8-foot ceilings, a curtain will be ill-fitted and come up too short from the floor. This is a typical, mass-produced 84-inch long curtain.
Draperies, on the other hand, touch the floor and have a better construction.
A floor-length drapery.
A drapery can also be break-length, in which case you need no more than an extra half inch to two, depending on how it’s is hung.
Draperies that are breaking on the floor.
Some draperies are puddle-length, allowed some excess of the fabric to puddle on the floor. This isn’t for high-traffic areas of the home but can give a window a luxurious, dramatic look. Puddles can be subtle with just a few inches added on, but they can even be very dramatic if more length is added.
A puddled rod pocket drapery.
Draperies That Are Swept to One Side of the Window Must Puddle on the Floor
When draperies are swept off to the side, it’s important that they puddle on the floor. It doesn’t have to be a dramatic puddle, but they must be touching the floor. Curtains often come with tiebacks, and by the time they’re hung on the window, you’ll quickly notice that they’re too short to be called draperies.
A drapery swept off to one side of the window, using a tieback. This drapery is 100 inches wide.
Curtains are shorter than draperies, especially when pulled to the side.
Draperies Are Hung Higher and Wider
Because of the size and fullness limitations of curtains, there’s also a limitation on how a curtain is hung. Curtains tend to be hung closer to the window, covering the window rather than framing it. Draperies are typically hung higher and wider to make a window appear larger than it really is and to add the illusion of height to a room.
We recommend to our clients to hang a drapery immediately under the ceiling line if the room has 8-foot ceilings, and at least halfway between the top of the window and ceiling if the room has 9-foot ceilings.
Draperies Have No Need to Be Over the Top
Most draperies are made with a focus on only a few of its features. Draperies are often rich in a subtle way, whereas a curtain can often appear to be trying too hard. Compare the first picture of custom draperies to the cheap curtains below and you’ll notice the difference.
Linen draperies with a striped faux shade valance underneath.
Several curtains made of polyester fabrics on a double wide window. Too much, but it all adds up to a strange, dated window treatment in the end.
Even when a window treatment is full of expensive-looking features like embroidery, trimmings, and deeply pleated fabric, the way you can tell it’s a custom quality window treatment with a drapery is if it’s a board-mount. In other words, these kinds of window treatments are usually hung with a top treatment that’s stapled on wood.
Another way to tell is how much higher the window treatment was hung above the window and whether the drapes are touching the floor.
A board-mounted swag and jabot valance with matching draperies.
Draperies Are Made Differently and May Have Additional Features
A drapery has certain standards it must meet. For example, some of the standards that many drapery tailors use are:
- double-turned side and bottom hems.
- blind-stitched hems.
- weighted bottom hems.
- deep, oversized pleats.
- floating bottom hem.
The Bottom Hem Test
To test whether you’re looking at a curtain or a drape, take a look at the window treatment and do a bottom hem test. Look at the bottom of the drapery and try to answer these questions.
Can you feel metal pieces behind the fabric on each corner and are they of substantial weight?
Were the main fabric and lining sewn separately at the bottom of the drapery (this is a floating bottom hem)? In other words, can you see inside the drapery when you look at it from the bottom? If yes, are the stitches on those bottom seams barely visible?
If your drapery has pleats like pinch pleats, goblet pleats, or similar, are the pleats big and noticeable, or are they short pleats that are barely half an inch deep and do very little to add fullness to the overall drapery?
Is the bottom hem of your drapery able to touch the floor? Is the drapery framing the window, or are you forced to cover the window instead? If the answer to the above 4 questions is yes, you’re more likely looking at a drapery. If you answered no for any one of the questions, chances are, it’s a curtain instead.
Draperies also tend to have more features than a curtain. These are small details that often make a big difference.
A pinch pleat header on a silk drapery with fabric-covered buttons. The drapery also had tassel fringe on the leading edge and was hung on a traverse rod.
A custom drapery hung on drapery medallions. This drapery had to be both lined and interlined since it’s made of 100% taffeta silk.
A Euro pleat drapery header.
Euro pleated drapes on a bay window.